My Third Semester: Research Track at UNAM, Mexico (2017-2019)

Interviews conducted by Ivana Putri

Ashanti Collavini (IT, Udine-Groningen) has a background in English and Spanish Languages and Literatures. Her undergraduate Erasmus experiences made her realize that she wanted to do MA studies abroad, where she could broaden her scope of studies to include global and contemporary issues; and challenge herself by experiencing different cultures and academic systems in various countries, all the while living and studying in an international environment.
Sabina Mešić (SI, Uppsala-Groningen) also studied English and Spanish Language and Literature during her Bachelor’s. She enrolled to Euroculture because she is interested in the programme’s interdisciplinarity, and she wanted to change the focus of her studies as well as study in various countries.
Both just finished their research semester at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. Thank you Ashanti and Sabina for taking the time to share your experiences!

1. So why did you decide to do a research track at UNAM?

Ashanti Collavini (AC): I have always had a deep interest in the Latin American context, and Mexico represented a great occasion in which I could immerse myself into a new continent and a reality which is very much different from a European one. In fact, I immediately thought that studying in such a different context than mine would have been not only challenging, but also extremely interesting and enriching for my personal development and the research I would have to conduct for my thesis (which I already knew would deal with Latin America-Europe relations). Having studied Spanish before, I also thought it was a great chance to improve my linguistic skills, and experience how it feels like being Italian and European in a non-European context (basically, I had enough with the Eurocentric orientation of my studies!). I felt so privileged to be able to spend one semester in Mexico.
Sabina Mešić (SM): Initially I wanted to do an internship to gain more working experience, but I could not resist the offer of going to Mexico! Personally, there are many reasons for doing a research track in Mexico City, the first being that I have always wanted to live/travel there. I have a few Mexican friends who inspired me to get to know the country through their stories. I studied Spanish since I was 13 years old, so my love towards the language was a second reason. And of course, when I saw the courses’ outline, it was the content of the classes that ‘pushed me’ to apply.

2. What were you doing in your research semester?

AC: During my research track in Mexico, I attended six courses at the Research Centre for Latin America and the Caribbean at UNAM: some of them were related to Europe-Latin America relations, some others were specifically focused on Mexico, or more broadly, on Latin America. Besides that, I was conducting independent research for my Master thesis, that deals with EU-Mexico relations concerning femicide. My personal research occurred alongside the course “Methodology for Social Research”, taught by the coordinator of Euroculture at UNAM.
SM: I attended six different courses: “Mexican Folkways”, “Cuban Revolution”, “New Territorial Governance”, “Latin America and Europe in the 20th Century”, “Aging and Human Rights” and “Qualitative Methodologies”. We did not have classes on Thursdays and Fridays. Our Thursdays were booked for museum visits and Fridays were for independent thesis research. We focused on familiarisation with Latin America, especially with its history and culture.

3. Based on your expectations, how did the research track go?

AC: I must confess I always try not to travel to a foreign country with too many expectations, because I like to be surprised! In any case, the experience really exceeded my initial thoughts. I had the chance to confront myself with such a diverse and complex reality, and deepen my knowledge on some of the issues that are going on in Mexico and in the region, like state impunity; the influence of civil society on the state’s power especially concerning access to justice; the phenomenon of migration in Central America to the US; the status of indigenous communities; and the current political situation, just to mention some. Since the Mexicans are extremely friendly and communicative, I felt I was improving my Spanish a lot both in academia and in daily life. That was also very helpful for my research. I attended some conferences and even carried out a couple of interviews, which is something I’ve never done before! On a more critical side, among the compulsory courses that we had to take, there were a couple that I was surely expecting to be better organised – I was not completely satisfied with the way the teachers gave the course. Sometimes I also felt that independent research, the main purpose of the semester, was given too little time due to the workload of the other courses, but anyway, I was quite able to dedicate time to both aspects in the academic life.
SM: I was hoping to get to know Mexico better within and beyond the academic environment. Part of my research deals with Mexico, and it is related to gender studies, so I was lucky that we had a coordinator who was an expert on the topic. Nonetheless, I would have liked to have a chance of attending a symposium or a lecture specifically on sex trafficking, not so much with women’s rights in general. Regarding the academic experience, I was very pleased with it overall, however, I am aware that we were privileged in many ways. There were only six students in the classes, and we were all foreign (Euroculture) students. We got cookies and coffee at every lecture, and our professors were attentive and helpful. I assume (based on what I heard from other students at the university) that the situation is not the same for others.

4. What are the major differences between your first and second semesters vis-à-vis your research semester?

AC: At UNAM I was studying in a research centre. Most of the teachers were more researchers than professors, so sometimes instead of strictly following a syllabus, we ended up speaking off the cuff about different issues that are not always related to the theme of the course. However, this also depends a lot on the professor and the academic culture. Since we were a small group, the courses were organised in a seminar format so that space was given to each student to talk and share ideas and opinions. For most of the courses, we had to write a research paper as the final examination. In some cases, we had some presentations and a mid-term content-oriented exam.I think the research track at UNAM allows students to enjoy a good amount of free time by traveling and getting to know the enormous metropolis, and learning about the country and its wonderful culture!
SM: In terms of studies, to me, there was no big difference. We had to attend some courses, so we had papers and exams at the end of the semester. I would say that we had more time to prepare the thesis portfolio because our classes finished on the 23rd of November. However, in terms of the living situation, it was very much different from the first and second semesters. Mexico City is a metropolis of 23 million people. The environment, the atmosphere and the culture is very different than in Uppsala or Groningen. The people are eager to help, I find that most of them are kind-hearted and warm. Sometimes we were informed that Mexicans treat us nicer because we are Europeans. Unfortunately, there is a popular opinion in Mexico that people (mostly from West European countries), represent beauty or wealth, be that may due to the colour of their skin or their nationality. Many times I have seen and heard about social class prejudice, which in Mexico is very common and is connected to the colour of one’s skin, financial status, and the language he/she speaks.

5. Did you find your coursework relevant to the research track?

SM: Generally, I did. I really liked the professors. I learned about Mexico and Latin America, and that was my goal. Of course, there were a few classes which relevance I could not see, such as New Territorial Governance. In this class, we talked about local agrifood systems, and as interesting as the topic is, I did not find its direct connection to the Euroculture syllabus. Nonetheless, I might be biased, since due to my background, I would much rather attend a literature class, but due to many hours of class, I did not.

6. What do you find most challenging about your research semester?

SM: In my case, I think it was to explain where I come from and everything connected to that. I noticed that in Mexico, the general population (with the exception of the students and teachers at UNAM, who seem to be more familiarised with it) do not know much about Eastern Europe. Even though the teachers treated us with respect, I sometimes had the feeling that my opinion was not as relevant because I come from Slovenia. I love the fact that in Euroculture, there are students from so many different countries, and it is our diversity that makes this programme strong. However, I was the only student this year [doing the research track at UNAM] who was not from a Western European country. So, often when we talked about Europe, we would simply refer to Western Europe, ignoring the rest. I am aware that my country is small and is not an important world force, so it can not be “included” [in the discourse] sometimes. But according to the values of Euroculture, I believe it is crucial that we not speak only of the West (Europe) as a developed world, and East (Europe) as less developed. We should be the ones that recognise stereotypes and can also admit the faults in them.

7. What was the social and working environment like at UNAM, or in Mexico City in general?

SM: The relationship with the coordinators and teachers was very personal. In the classroom, we got to know each other quite well, also among the students, which provided us a comfortable environment for expressing ourselves. Although students liked some teachers better than others, our relationship with the coordinator, Alethia, and her assistant, Rodrigo, was great. We could always count on them, professionally and personally, which is a great plus when being far away from home.

8. What have you learned so far about yourself in the course of this research semester?

AC: I learned to trust my instincts when travelling by myself or when moving throughout the metropolis (e.g. assessing personal security risks). I learned that I’m much braver than I thought. I learned that I can move across different disciplines of study, no matter how far they are from my “comfort zone”. I learned that my personality fits very well in Mexico and that I could possibly take it as new life destination!
SM: One thing I learned is that I know so little about the world, and to get to know it, I should travel and get the first-hand experience of a certain place. Also, I noticed that my independence and confidence extended throughout Euroculture, because I got to know great people on this journey who taught me about life.

6. Any tips for fellow Euroculture students who might want to do research at UNAM?

AC: Come already with an idea of what you’d like to focus on in your thesis, then you’ll have the time to develop it during the semester (or change your mind about it). Try to shed some time for your thesis research, but also try to grasp as much as you can from the whole learning experience, talk to people, be curious and be open-minded!
SM: If you’re considering to do the research track in Mexico, do it, you will not regret the majestic experience! Get to know students who have been there before, it will make your life in Mexico City a lot easier.

(In featured picture: Sabina Mesic on the left & Ashanti Collavini on the right.)

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